Probably the most renowned Swedish actor working onscreen today (next to the venerable Max von Sydow), Stellan Skarsgård is a reliably solid presence in any film, big or small. And he's done it all, from obscure, harsh dramas like Juanita Wilson's recent 'As If I Am Not There' to big, fluffy musicals like 'Mamma Mia!' (granted, that was his only fluffy musical). A major part of the American movie-going public knows him as Bootstrap Bill from the last two 'Pirates of the Caribbean' movies; a smaller segment recognizes him mainly from Lars von Trier films, and then there's Verner Vollstedt, his crazily overbearing director character on HBO's 'Entourage.'
Opening Friday is 'Frankie and Alice,' in which Skarsgård plays a psychiatrist to Halle Berry's multiple personalities. Most recently he gave a wonderful performance in dark Norwegian (redundant?) crime comedy 'A Somewhat Gentle Man' -- unfortunately in very limited U.S. release -- as a murderer just sprung from prison. It's definitely one of his best characters. But looking over the man's long career, 1997's 'Insomnia,' in which he played a sleep-deprived, guilt-ridden cop, stands out as his breakthrough role. (Though Christopher Nolan's remake with Al Pacino was also excellent, Skarsgård really owned that part.)
Skarsgård had mainly done smallish Scandinavian movies and TV before von Trier cast him in 'Breaking the Waves' (1996) as Emily Watson's crippled husband. Though Watson was indisputably that movie's star, its success vaulted him into movies such as 'Good Will Hunting' (as Will's math professor) and Spielberg's 'Amistad' (as abolitionist Lewis Tappan). Skarsgård continued to toggle between arthouse ('Dancer in the Dark,' 'Signs and Wonders,' 'Dogville') and Hollywood, appearing in John Frankenheimer's 'Ronin,' and Renny Harlin's 'Deep Blue Sea' and 'Exorcist: The Beginning,' playing the younger version of Von Sydow's Father Merrin from the original.
Skarsgård's intensity translates well into action/adventure, where he was cast as a ruthless Saxon leader in 'King Arthur' and a Danish king in 'Beowulf & Grendel.' (And of course, Bootstrap Bill.) But it's his quieter roles, like detective Jonas Engström in Norwegian writer/director Erik Skjoldbjærg's 'Insomnia' that really showcase his talent.
Engström, a former Swedish cop now with the Norwegian national police, is called to a small Arctic town to investigate a murder, along with his partner Vik. When they lure the suspect back to the scene of the crime, a chase insues, with the armed suspect firing at them in a thick fog. Using his old Swedish police gun (Norwegian law officers aren't armed), Engström fires back, accidentally killing Vik. Wracked by guilt and unable to sleep due to the constant northern light, the detective continues working on the case, even as he's falling apart. Complicating things is the fact that the murder suspect is the only other person who knows that Engström shot his partner. (The following clip's "subtitles" are a bit spotty, but the translation is faithful.)
Engström is a serious, reserved type with occasional flashes of aggression (he was the "bad-cop" to Vik's good one) and Skarsgård portrays his quiet, believable deterioration with restraint. His sleep-deprived face becomes haggard and slack and he seems perpetually on the verge of nodding off. Engström's guilt and insomnia make him paranoid; he hallucinates appearances by his dead partner. Yet, he generally maintains a smooth professional facade.
To save himself and his sterling reputation, he tampers with evidence and initiates a cover-up. Despite his weakened condition, training and tenacity keep him focused and he never falters, even when questioned by a suspicious colleague. The movie builds slowly to a tense climax, as Engström and his would-be blackmailer face off.
Skarsgård has some high-profile movies on the horizon (Kenneth Branagh's 'Thor,' von Trier's 'Melancholia,' David Fincher's 'The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo') and he'll undoubtedly be great in all of them, but 'Insomnia' was completely his movie and his best role yet.